Quit Stahl-ing: WKU must remain focused after shedding underdog status

WKU head coach Tyson Helton leads his squad on to the field to play in-state adversary, the Louisville Cardinals on September 14, 2019 at Nissan Stadium. Louisville won 38-21.

Matt Stahl

When WKU stumbled mightily out of the gate to start the 2019 season, the program looked hopeless.

Losing to a Football Championship Subdivision opponent in the home opener for the second straight year made the Hilltoppers the laughingstock of the country.

According to the USA Today college football re-rank released on Sept. 3, WKU was dead last in the Football Bowl Subdivision rankings at No. 130.

Since then, things have settled down a bit. Tyson Helton’s offense hasn’t exactly been burning it up, but it’s been scoring just enough points to squeak by with some victories.

However, Helton has proven adept at making his team forget past failures and focus on ways to exploit the current opponent.

Now, the first-year head coach has a new challenge.

The time of WKU being an underdog every single game is over. The Hilltoppers have proven their loss in the first game of the season was a turning point, a moment when the team decided they needed to shake off the stink of the Mike Sanford years.

That’s the key difference between Sanford and Helton. The 2018 Hilltoppers got off to a bad start, had some key injuries early and then hung their heads and gave up, limping to one of the worst seasons in recent memory.

If the previous coaching group had been in charge of the 2019 team, the results of this season could have gone much more poorly. Although defensive coordinator Clayton White’s stout defense would still be in place, the head coach has most of the responsibility of motivating his team, and Helton excels in that area.

But back to the main point, Helton has previously been tasked with preparing his team to face a heavily favored opponent. However, this week he must get his team ready to take on the lowly Charlotte 49ers at home during Homecoming festivities.

Coming off of a mental mountaintop moment like the Hilltoppers had against Army, it will be extremely easy for the team to look past the 49ers.

Unfortunately, Charlotte head coach Will Healy is young, hungry and a darn good coach. He led an Austin Peay squad that hadn’t won a game in its last 29 attempts to an 8-1 record against FCS teams and was later named Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year.

During the offseason, Healy took over a 49er squad that blasted WKU 40-14 in Charlotte, North Carolina, last season. 

This isn’t to say that Charlotte is any good at all this season, as the team sits at 2-4 in 2019 and its two wins came against low-level competitors Massachusetts and Gardner-Webb.

But this would be an easy game to look past and lose for WKU. And with the Hilltoppers currently sitting in first place in the Conference USA East Division, it’s important to not look past this one.

Even the defense faces a test in Charlotte running back Benny LeMay, who was placed on the 2019 watch list for the Doak Walker Award, which is given to the nation’s top running back.

If the Hilltoppers come to Homecoming playing like the best version of themselves, they should win handily, dominating an opponent that, at least from the outside, appears to be overmatched in most areas. But as we’ve seen, WKU hasn’t always come out like that.

This is the game where we will see if this truly isn’t the same WKU team that blew its game against Central Arkansas. If the Hilltoppers aren’t going to be the underdogs every week, this is the time to prove themselves.

Sports Columnist and News Editor Matt Stahl can be reached at [email protected] Follow Matt on Twitter @mattstahl97.